Kawabata, the Unfortunaeid, and a serendipitously discarded plot

(This is an essay in “Aesthetic Ontology”.  Aesthetic Ontology is a inquiry into the “sorts of aesthetic and art objects that exist”.  One hopes for it to be useful, but will be happy if it’s just fun).


Alas, my fifth Kawabata — Beauty and Sadness — turns out a disappointment.

Since the back-cover blurb promised a  “twenty-years-later” reunion in Kyoto (while listening to the Chionin bells, no less) of two former lovers — a writer and a painter, I expected more of the same-old-same-old I had come to love:  intelligent and sensitive reflection on the past, passage of time, memory, etc., with an occasional pearl of aesthetic insight.

Alas, Beauty and Sadness isn’t about any of that.  Instead, it is about an emotionally disturbed young woman with whom both protagonists become  inexplicably involved, instead of doing what every healthy person would in their case:  reversing as far and as fast as the wheels will spin.

(Why don’t they?!)


Beauty and Sadness strays thereby from the high (perhaps unique) Kawabata standard (who else writes convincing novels about very intelligent healthy people?) into a very common sort of art — think Munch, Schiele — which does not touch upon our persons at all. Stories of affairs with the mentally disturbed, and mental disease in general, of retardation, self-mutilation, psychopathy, panic attacks, alcoholism, wife-beating — it is, as far as we normals are concerned, stuff that might as well be happening in the cracks the my bathroom floor; or in the heads of cats.

I mean, yes, we know that such people exist.  Mental disease is human, no doubt.  We are certainly sorry for such fellows; I personally have a at least a somewhat academic interest in mental malfunction (and have once read extensively in the Encyclopedia of Psychiatry); and we do our bit for the unfortunates, when we can.  But Afer’s dictum — humo sum, etc. — does not describe us and I must wonder whether it actually described Afer:  plenty of what is human is and shall remain wholly foreign to us.

And well it should.  What gain is there for me in dwelling on the fact that some people bite their nails?  To know that they do has some epistemological value. To dwell on it — none.

For, here’s the thing:  no amount of exposition of the inner workings and plight of, say, psychopaths, or wife-beaters, or indeed, beaten wives, will do a damn thing for my own internal life.  It can at most elicit a relieved sigh of “Thank God, it’s not me”.  Though usually it only elicits — “Yuck!”  (Name this quote:  “One does not refute disease, one rejects it”).

Indeed, old friends, can you perhaps see how this kind of stuff is supposed to enrich our own internal lives?


For all its uselessness to us, normals, the “Unfortunaeid” (as in “Aeneid”) – the story of the plight of the unfortunate — has been an awfully common sort of art since (round-about) Zola.  Indeed, on my last visit to NYC, which, for precisely this reason, shall forever remain the last, I found myself scanning theater listings for something to see and discovered that absolutely every single non-musical production was an “Unfortunaeid”.  And a good deal of the musical productions, too. (How else would you classify La Traviata?)

Somehow, Unfortunaeids are deemed “socially engaged art”.  Yet, the Unfortunaeid does not usually tell its story honestly, preferring to prettify its victim-heroes for greater heart-rending effect:  we’re made to think that the endangered Blue Fin Tuna aren’t all that carnivore, they only gently harvest the smaller fry, etc., the psychopath is a brilliant aesthete, etc.  But lying means that the deemed “engagement” is not there: we are not made to engage the plight of the unfortunates; rather, we’re made to engage the author’s lies.  And if so, then what is this kind of art but attention-mongering through shock and revulsion, while simultaneously morally check-mating any criticism into silence:  “What?! Are you against the [put your topical unfortunate demographic here]?!”

There are two answers to give here:  the first is that if you lie about the facts, you’re not educating, you’re just lying; and, second, and more relevant to me: no, we do not have anything against the unfortunate demographics; but it’s not doing us any good personally to dwell upon their plight.


Was Kawabata attention-mongering when he set out to write his Beauty and Sadness?  That seems unlikely:  it was written towards the end of his career, when he was already a Nobelist, and could really have written anything at all — and gotten it published and talked about.

So…  perhaps that is exactly what he did:  spent, gone barren with age and drink, he did just write anything?  (The literary equivalent of Dali signing indifferent doodles).  A small thing and yet, how it embarrasses!

I suppose the good news in all this is that, since Kawabata has not done justice to the plot of two intelligent, sensitive lovers meeting after twenty years’ separation, the plot is, as it were, “available”, and I am free to use it in my Wurzubrg project.

(Kate:  don’t ask the provenance of the painting, for I do not know it: it’s just something the cat dragged in.  The brushwork looks modern to me; but, hey, whaddayaknow?)

5 responses

  1. Ha :-D Very nice painting, the cat did a fabulous job, Sir G.

    I am one with you on this issue. More of the same stuff of which our lives is made serves only to create empathy, but not to bring us to new levels of ourselves. It’s something I am trying to bring to the teachers I work with: even at a young age, children should not be dwelling on Unfortunaeids.

    January 7, 2011 at 09:45

  2. Kate, you’re an embarrassment of wonder: since you started pitching me my traffic is up 400%; it seems that i am back to running a popular blog! (brrr) it’s soooo flattering… but so stressful! typos (the usual), skips in argument (likewise), and faulty grammar are no longer allowed — like they were when i had three readers!

    the cat does a wonderful job; maybe i should stop pitching him out of the second story window (as i have been in order to teach it not to come back, but the damn thing licks itself and comes back — every time); i am very pleased the cat pleases you, though

    about Unfortunaeids… there is not enough art made for me/us. don’t you agree? i am more often disappointed than not!

    one of my favorite Polish authors — and about the only one who writes about men as intelligent as we are — has coined a dictum: it is impossible to write a novel about a hero more intelligent than oneself (Monsieur Teste case in point!) — QED

    January 8, 2011 at 03:18

    • Or am I wonder of embarrassment? That fairly describes my place in life until now….sorry about all the traffic: I have brought tourists to this beautiful sanctum…all I can do is plead with you not to flee to a more isolated blog just yet. Take a swig of something fortifying and soldier on. Life would be much more tedious without The Cultured Life to spice it up.

      January 8, 2011 at 09:40

  3. Well, I’m glad to have you here and — your friends are well behaved, so… i guess I am not going to run just yet!

    January 8, 2011 at 10:27

  4. Sansauvain

    “perhaps that is exactly what he did: spent, gone barren with age and drink, he did just write anything”

    i am not sure whether you would call it spent, but he does seem to have run out of ideas: about his last work is his Snow Country rewritten as a short story
    (why write beauty and sadness when you can write the snow country again, right?)

    December 3, 2011 at 01:48

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